Band: James McMurtry
Date: Thursday, Nov. 12 with doors at 8 p.m.
Venue: The Merry Widow, 51 S. Conception St.
Tickets: $15 advance through Ticketfly/$20 day of show
In the mid ‘60s, a host of musicians began migrating to Austin, Texas. Artists such as Willie Nelson and Rory Erickson took the city’s already-established music scene and eventually reshaped it into the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Since then, Austin remains one of America’s most dynamic music scenes, as well as the home of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference.
Throughout, singer-songwriter James McMurtry has maintained his reputation for being one of Austin’s most prolific artists. He found success with his 1989 debut “Too Long in the Wasteland,” produced by John Mellencamp. The following years included multiple releases as well as a Grammy nomination and an Americana Indie Award, plus a multitude of live performances as memorable as his songs. Jason Isbell cites McMurtry as one of his main influences.
Even though he is a seasoned veteran of the Austin music scene, McMurtry would not be the best person to ask about its contemporary stage. He’s proud of its past, and his weekly performances serve as a look into Austin’s raw, organic roots before indie was chic.
“I don’t think much about it,” McMurtry said. “I still got one foot in the old scene. I play The Continental Club every Wednesday night. Dale Watson plays Monday nights, and Redd Volkaert plays Sunday. We’re all old guys. I don’t know what the kids are doing.”
McMurtry’s weekly gigs at The Continental Club do not keep him tied to Austin. In fact, he maintains a busy tour schedule. And as the business side of the music industry has changed, McMurtry has followed suit. With the advent of digital music and the low-paying royalties for online streams, many modern artists have been forced to search for their paycheck in other aspects in the music world.
Live performances consistently offer the most direct financial benefit for modern musicians. When not at The Continental, McMurtry spends half the year touring through Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. He admits his live performances provided the catalyst for his first release in six years, “Complicated Game.”
“I didn’t need to make a record because my club draw held up pretty good,” McMurtry said. “Used to, we toured to promote record sales; now it’s the other way around. We put out records, so you guys [journalists] will write about us. So people will know we’re coming to town and they’ll come to the gig. I tried to stretch it out as long as I could. It finally started falling off a couple of years ago. I knew it was time to make a record.”
While “Complicated Game” is a description of personal relationships, this new album’s title maintains the outlaw roots that are characteristic of the historic Austin scene. The album’s title is also the name of the label on which it was released. The label name came first, then McMurtry decided to use it in his lyrics. Next, he used it as a title in an effort to insinuate he owns the label. McMurtry admits the ploy “didn’t fool anybody.”
As the son of famous author Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”), the singer-songwriter couldn’t help but incorporate a literary aspect into his music. McMurtry has mastered translating intricate character studies into his songs that take on the attitude of a story. The songs on “Complicated Game” serve as an emotional gallery of snapshots into the lives of a versatile group of individuals. While this style of songwriting is employed by many artists, McMurtry has a unique method of bringing his characters to life. Typically, songwriters who fill their catalog with character-based songs are inspired by actual people, whether they’re closely associated with them or not. McMurtry’s characters, by comparison, have simple beginnings evolving into fictional realities.
“Characters come from the lines,” McMurtry explained. “I get a couple of lines with a melody, and it’s the seed for the song. I listen to the line and think, ‘Who said that?’ Then I try to envision the character who might have said that. From the character, I get the story.”
The stories begin with “Copper Canteen” and its waltzing, rural tale of love. “Carlisle’s Haul” is a track to which many in the Mobile area can relate. It’s the survival tale of an outlaw fisherman trying to get his seine net out before the game warden catches him. This story is set to a ballad strum provided by a warm acoustic.
McMurtry takes a vacation in his mind with “Forgotten Coast.” Through emotional recall, he provides one of the most accurate descriptions of a stretch of the Florida Gulf coastline between Mexico Beach and Apalachicola.
Of all the characters on “Complicated Game,” “How’m I Gonna Find You” is probably the most colorful. McMurtry describes this character as a “hillbilly speed freak.” With a rhythmic country vibe that borders on rock, he quickly rolls through lyrics that highlight white-trash love at its finest. McMurtry counts this character as his favorite on the album, and the song’s creation is one of the most spontaneously natural on “Complicated Game.”
“I was actually going down the road and had a rattle in the dashboard,” McMurtry said. “I whacked it with my fist, and it stopped for a little while. When I got to my hunting camp, I sat down and wrote the song. It’s one of the rare ones that came pretty quickly.”
The music on this album has led both critics and fans to proclaim it as his best yet. However, McMurtry disagrees. While he’ll admit “Complicated Game” is good, he feels his best is yet to come. Thanks to the modern business model of the music industry, the public won’t have to wait long until his next release. He plans to put out material faster in an effort to boost his club gigs. With this mind, the public may get McMurtry’s prophesied best album sooner than they think.